|THE STORY OF JESUS' SUFFERING
Almost one third of the gospel testimony is concentrated on the description of Jesus' suffering and death. Every year the Christian Church dwells for over three months on the same subject: Firstly there are the seven weeks of Lent, during which we follow the steps of Jesus "up to Jerusalem"; then in the next seven weeks from Easter to Pentecost we look at his Passion in retrospect, as it were.
Jesus' via dolorosa begins with the "passion intimations", of which the Synoptists are unanimous in their respective accounts. Jesus gave the first intimation of his suffering and resurrection nearby the Hermon mountains in Caesarea Philippi.1 Matthew tells us first how he asks "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" Peter then makes his confession that he is "the Christ, the Son of the Living God". At that Jesus utters the extraordinary words: "On this rock" -- on this foundation of faith -- "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." And then we read:
It ought to be remembered that the prophecy in Daniel 9 states that the Messiah will be put to death in Jerusalem and then the whole city will be destroyed. It is therefore no coincidence that Jesus once sent "greetings" to Herod Antipas in the following words:
The Rabbis, furthermore, mention in passing that the Messiah's suffering will take place in the month of Nisan, that is at Passover time. The pages of the gospels positively exude the imminence of that festival, which is ultimately reduced to a horrifying spectacle of suffering. Passover time is beautifully brought to the fore in one of the Midrashes:
The King arrives in his capital city.
The events of Holy Week are inextricably bound up with the OT prophecies and with Jewish Messianic expectation. Some aspects, it is true, appear in the gospels only as minute snapshots, but relatively generous space is devoted to the ceremonial arrival of Jesus in the Holy City. This, Jesus' first Advent, appears in all the gospels.6 John gives an account of Jesus purging the Temple of money-changers also at the beginning of his ministry.7 There is no reason to doubt the dual picture given by John, neither does belief in it necessarily involve any "harmonistic acrobatics", as has been claimed. The beginning of Malachi ch. 3 makes it clear that "the Lord will suddenly come to his temple". Concern for his Father's house was a natural part of Jesus' Messianic role.
The Temple outer court had become a market place for the Sadduccean priesthood. There they sold sacrificial lambs, bulls and doves. The money-changers sat at their tables and converted foreign currency into their own money, which had no images or superscriptions referring to idols. Right on the Temple's southwest corner was a vast hippodrome, built by King Herod, in which were held horse races. Orthodox Jews strongly disapproved of the shouts which carried up from the race-track and the racket from the market dealing going on inside the very sanctuary itself. Mark's gospel provides us with a little detail; Jesus was angered by the fact that the Temple was being used as a thoroughfare, and so he "would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the Temple courts". The House of Prayer had become a "den of thieves" (Is. 56:7 and Jer. 7:11), and the activities within it had the connivance of even the priesthood.
The account in the gospels of Jesus riding into Jerusalem includes elements relating to Biblical prophecy, with a mingling of both joy and sorrow. Jesus came to the city through Bethphage, the 'house of figs', and Bethany, the 'house of poverty'. Distinguished Sages had the local prerogative of appropriating for their own use whatever means of transport might be available: they only needed to say "The Rabbi requires it!" Similarly the disciples, when challenged by the owner of the donkey, had been instructed to say "The Lord needs it!"
When Jesus rode into the city on a lowly donkey the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 regarding the "gentle" king who will come "riding on a donkey" found its fulfilment. The Rabbis often linked that prophecy with Jacob's blessing in Gen. 49, which speaks of the ruler who will have "the obedience of the nations". He will "tether his donkey to a vine" and cleanse them with "the blood of grapes". The Talmud associates dreaming of a donkey and a vine with the coming of the Messiah.8
The most precious memory which remained with the disciples from Jesus' triumphal entry was the Hosanna Psalm which the people sang as they spread their garments and palm leafs onto the road. This relates to the prophecy of Ps 118:21-26.9 This psalm was to be sung "in the time of salvation" to the Messiah. Pilgrims to the great feasts were also greeted with it: When "Hosanna, O LORD, save us" was sung from the walls the answer would come back from outside, "Hosanna, O LORD, grant us success"; and again from the walls, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD". . . and then in antiphonal response, "From the house of the LORD we bless you". The Messiah had, then, to come when the Temple was still standing. The gospel goes on to relate how the children continued singing as they marched into the sanctuary, "Hosanna to the Son of David!"
For Jesus, however, this festive procession signified the prelude to his sufferings: He wept! And he said:
It is custormary in the East to honour a visiting ruler by spreading out valuable rugs before him on his arrival in the city. Streets and alleyways are cleaned beforehand, the most expensive palace is put at his disposal and he is received personally by the 'cream' of the city. Here we read of how Jesus "came unto his own and his own did not receive him" (John 1:11). He came to "his city" (Heb. îrô) riding on "his donkey" (Heb. also îrô). "This is the result of their arrogance", says Rabbi Shmuel Ben Yitshak regarding the description in Jeremiah 13:17 of God weeping "bitterly" because of the "pride" of his people, "therefore the Torah will be taken away from them and given to the Gentile nations."12 As the Temple had not been cleansed, Jesus did it himself. Thus came the King of Kings to his capital city.
The prophecy of Ps 118 concerning him had, however, to be fulfilled: now the builders would reject this "cornerstone", but "later, he will be placed as the capstone, which will prove to be the precious seed of David and the foundation of the foundations . . . This will not happen in an instant, but there will first be great sufferings."13
It is wrong to accuse the Chosen People of stubbornness as such -- before the word of God "every mouth is silenced and the whole world held accountable to Him", be it a question of the scribalism and concealed Pharisaism of Jesus' time or our own. The divine "necessity" is ever apparent in the plan of salvation, which in the Greek New Testament is repeatedly expressed by dei, 'must', 'is necessary': "The Son of Man must suffer!"14 And now this via dolorosa was just beginning.
The Passover in Jesus' day
The reader of today can only with great difficulty conceive of how vast were the crowds which gathered in Jerusalem at the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. At these shelosheth ha-Regalim, 'shank's pony' festivals, as the Jews call them, the people were obliged to come, insofar as they were able, to the Holy City. The historian Josephus tells us how Cestius asked the high priest to estimate the number of sacrificial lambs in Jerusalem at Passover, in order to convince the Emperor Nero of how important the Jewish people and Jerusalem were to the ruling potentate. The total arrived at was 256,500, which suggests a multitude of over two and a half million, since each lamb was to be shared amongst a group of 10 people. These lambs were, it is true, taken to the nearby villages and towns to be eaten. Josephus himself once determined the size of the crowds at almost three million, and once at 2,700,000.15
The towns and villages around the city had been combined into one sabbath and feast area. Those who were successful in finding accomodation in the city itself gave to their hosts the hide of their sacrificial lamb and the holy vessels they had with them. The estimate of Cestius regarding the numbers of the Passover sacrifices cannot be much of an exaggeration. The city was packed.
Luke tells us briefly of Holy Week that Jesus "taught every day in the Temple", and that "all the people hung on his words". Solomon's Colonnade in particular became a beloved meeting place for the early Christians.16 Johanan Ben Zakkai was also in the habit, at the time of Jesus, of "sitting in the shade of the Temple and teaching" from morning till evening. The Talmud explains that he "had no choice, as there was no other place available which could have accommodated so many people, and of course for the further reason that there he could enjoy the shade of the Temple".17
Jesus' discourses and parables on this, his last Passover week, are concerned primarily with the responsibility of God's "vineyard", Israel, to the message it had heard. In the same setting he gave his rebukes to the leaders of the people. Sitting on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, opposite the majestic, snow-white Temple, he taught at length about the End of the Age and his Second Coming.18 The Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians tried to trap him with his own words so that they could make public charges against him, but Jesus refused to be drawn for anyone's benefit into human partisanship: he had come to present God's summons to his people.
Perhaps the most difficult question of the Passover was the snare set him by the combined forces of the Pharisees -- representing religious cliques -- and the Herodians -- upholders of the political status quo: "Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" "You hypocrites", Jesus replies, "why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius. The coin bore the inscription Tiberius Caesar Divi, 'The Divine Emperor Tiberius'! Jesus, however, avoids the answer which to their minds was the only one possible. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's", he says, "and to God what is God's."19 The Greek word here, apodote, means 'return' --"Give back" to God what is his and to Caesar what he has claimed as his own (the coin carried an image of the Emperor). The gospel tells us that after this incident, "No-one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no-one dared to ask him any more questions." The words of the book of Enoch regarding the Messiah were fulfilled in Jesus: "He reveals the secret things and no-one can contend with him."20
But the high point of the month of Nisan, the Passover meal proper --the seder -- was at hand. A month earlier, all the roads and bridges in the Holy Land would have been repaired. Two weeks before the feast, the tithes would have been separated for the priesthood from the flocks of sheep, the Temple coffers would have been opened and publicly emptied and the graves in the locality would have been whitewashed so that no-one would be polluted by touching them. John's gospel tells us that "many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover" (11:55). If they did not tarry for the festival, they would return home with a sacrificial lamb approved by the priesthood for their feast of unleavened bread. Speaking precisely, the pesah proper with its Paschal meal was on the evening of the 14th of Nisan, whereas the "feast of unleavened bread" began on the 15th of the same month and lasted 7 days, that is to the 21st. These two feasts were so inextricably bound up one with another that the Old and New Testaments treat them as one. Josephus quite logically refers to Passover as "the eight-day feast".
This exactitude regarding nomenclature here is no mere splitting of hairs. If this is not taken into account, the impression might be gained from John's gospel that the disciples were not eating an actual Paschal meal at the institution of the Lord's Supper. There were, in fact, two important hagigah festive sacrifices. The first hagigah was sacrificed on the 14th Nisan and it was associated with the Paschal meal of the same evening. The second hagigah, which could be translated as "festive offering", was made on the 15th, in other words, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It is this second sacrifice which is alluded to in John 18:28 when we are told that the Orthodox Jews, "to avoid ceremonial uncleanness", could not go into the palace as, "they wanted to be able eat the Passover". Many Christian scholars have calculated that the actual Paschal meal was, according to this verse, only on the day of Jesus' death, Friday. This ceremonial uncleanness lasted in Jewish custom only to sunset, and the Passover meal was in fact eaten late in the evening. Ceremonial uncleanness would, however, have prevented them from participating in the festivities of the 15th of Nisan. The Hebrew word John uses, pascha, apparently refers in this case to the afternoon ceremonial hagigah sacrifice.
Jewish-born Dr Alfred Edersheim had as such no need of "harmonistic acrobatics". A first-rate authority on the cult-worship of the Temple, writing in the middle of last century in his consideration of the apparent inconsistency in John, he says that:
The word seder, 'order', is used of the Passover festive meal. It was to be partaken of, in the words of the Talmud, "only when evening comes, but not however after midnight". The supper described by the New Testament and the seder of today surely have much in common. The one making the arrangements had to concern himself with five things: he had to arrange a place to hold the celebration, chose a company of at least ten people to partake of the meal, take the lamb to the Temple to be slaughtered, then take it to the arranged place where it was roasted on a pomegranate spit that passed right through it from mouth to vent with a cross-member below the shoulder.
The Temple priesthood rotated in groups of 30, which were seen the numbers of perfection and divinity, 3 x 10. The Samaritan sect in modern Israel still carries out the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb in the ancient way. The lamb has to be slaughtered without it having a chance to bleat, or else the offering is invalid. The Jews themselves have not actually offered blood sacrifices since the destruction of the Temple since they have no "consecrated priest or Temple", as the morning prayer always reminds them. Orthodox Jews nevertheless, on the Great Day of Atonement, make the symbolic sacrifice of a cock. They whirl it above their heads, spattering its blood around them, at the same time reciting the words which appear over and over in the prayer-book: "May this be on my behalf, in my stead and for my atonement; may the cock enter into death and I into a long and good life and peace." Some well-known sages have opposed this custom, which seems to be derived from Babylonian cults.
Jewish homes too had their own preparations to be made. Those which befell the woman of the house began on the evening of the 13th, the official beginning of the following day. Candles in hand, a search was made in every cupboard and corner to ensure that no trace of leaven or yeast was to be found. Paul too writes, "get rid of the old yeast".23 This tradition is related to the law of Moses and to the words of Zephaniah 1:12:
On the 14th of Nisan, the hagigah festive offering was made two hours earlier than usual, at about half past twelve, giving the people time to prepare their Paschal Lambs.24 The gospels tell us that Peter and John were charged with reserving a room and with the readying of the Paschal Lamb. Jesus told them that they would meet a man in the town carrying a pitcher of water, a rare sight, as the fetching or water was generally a woman's task. It would seem that Jesus did not wish to reveal unnecessarily early just where they would eat their Passover meal so that they would not be disturbed in the middle of the celebration. The man apparently led the disciples to the upper room of Mark's mother Mary, which was later to become the meeting place of the young church.25
Archeological discoveries over the years have awakened new thoughts as to the possible situation of this upper room. The Catholic scholar Bargil Pixner has written an extensive article on the 'extensive Essene' quarters" on Mt Zion (Das Heilige Land, Heft 2/3, Sept. 1981), in which he mentions that both Josephus and Philo estimated the number of Pharisees in Jesus' time to be about 6000 and the Essenes about 4000. When Qumran was destroyed in BC 37, King Herod temporarily granted the desert community of brethren the right to take up residence on the west slope of Mt Zion. Excavations have revealed an extensive walled block comprising a number of rooms for purification and appartments for guests. The man carrying the pitcher may well have been one of these monks fetching the all-important 'living water', spring water from the pool of Siloam, for the purification rites. Some critics have come up with the idea that Jesus partook of the Paschal meal with his disciples in an Essene guest room and following their festive calendar, which would place the event two days earlier, ie., on Tuesday. It is difficult, however, to conceive of a devout Jew who after carefully observing all the other Temple regulations, as he would of course, nevertheless diverging from the specified 14th of Nisan. On the other hand, those very guest appartments in the Essenes' quarters were available on the actual seder evening. It is further possible that the baptism of 3000 people mentioned in Acts 2:41 may have taken place in these same quarters, which were later to become the centre of the early church for a long time.
The public ministry of our Redeemer began in Cana with the miracle of
the wine. He was himself the true vine. Now as he dines with his companions
on his farewell evening he prescribes the fruit of the vine as the supper
of the new covenant.